If you're wondering how united St. Albert councillors are on drastic changes to council's governance model, you'll find your answer in the narrow 4-3 vote in favour of the changes.
Mayor Cathy Heron, Coun. Wes Brodhead, Coun. Jacquie Hansen and Coun. Ray Watkins voted Monday in favour of splitting council's main committee into two and reducing the amount of council meetings that take place per month. The three other members of council, Coun. Ken MacKay, Coun. Sheena Hughes and Coun. Natalie Joly, were opposed.
The changes mean each committee's discussions and votes will only involve three of six councillors, with Heron sitting as a fourth member on both, although the other half can sit in on discussions if they want. One committee will deal with community living matters – such as housing, environment, social and cultural issues – while the other will deal with community growth and infrastructure – such as land planning, municipal infrastructure and transportation/transit.
Committees are an important function of council. All of council currently meets once per month for its governance, priorities and finance committee meeting, where robust discussions occur. The committee decides which motions should come to the regular council meeting for a vote. The meeting has been vital for big-ticket items, such as smoking and cannabis, major changes to the city's land use bylaw, electrical franchise fees and a prospective municipal utility corporation. Traditionally, councillors use this venue to bounce ideas off each other, hash out questions and – if needed – ask administration to get them more information so they can have the full picture of what impact a pending decision might have on the city.
Councillors were split Monday on whether the new structure would help or hinder council discussions. Hansen said the benefits of moving to this model include reducing the workload on administration and creating a better-informed council and public. Heron said the model would give council more time to invest in certain issues; Brodhead said the two-committee structure would allow councillors to focus on their areas of interest; and Watkins said he sees a lot of duplication in the current committee structure.
On the other side of the coin, Joly and Hughes both said councillors were elected to represent the public on all issues, while MacKay worried the two-committee structure might create dysfunction.
The new model runs the risk of separating council members into silos, leaving each half unaware of the other half's discussions and resulting decisions. It could also result in delays on decisions, if councillors have to send items back to committee for more information or for changes because their voices were not heard during the original committee discussion.
Ultimately, there is no doubt councillors' workload is a heavy one. They bear the future of St. Albert on their shoulders, and that's the job they signed up to do. Some of them, who had previously served on council, knew what the workload would be like when they ran for re-election in 2017.
There should be no shortcuts for good governance, and an informed council – on all issues – is one that can better serve its people. Council isn’t unified on the changes, and that may have unintended consequences.